Fighting corruption, Russian-style

'Cleaning up' the court system means more power for parliament - now headed by Putin.

Dmitry Medvedev 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
Dmitry Medvedev 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
Almost immediately upon taking office as Russian president earlier this month, Vladimir Putin's chosen successor Dmitry Medvedev announced his campaign to "clean up" Russia's corrupt court system. But this mission is less about transparency and justice than about control. Speaking of the "assertion of the supremacy of law" in an interview he gave in March, Medvedev laid the ideological foundation for the reinforcement of Russia's legislative power - the parliament - which happens to now have at its head ex-president Putin. When recently Medvedev spoke of the need for the court system to be "independent" of Kremlin influence, he means that it should have the power to regulate members of the Kremlin itself - a welcome idea that suggests checks and balances, even fairness. But why is this initiative coming ostensibly from the Kremlin itself? Why is the first point on the president's agenda to directly strengthen governmental rule? One possible reason is that the Kremlin has grown too big and powerful for its own good. Over his eight years in office, Putin has consolidated power at the Kremlin, especially by replacing regional elections with Kremlin-appointed officials. But it seems that this strategy has reached the point that Putin (and certainly Medvedev) can no longer supervise all the minor officials the system has empowered. Enter Russia's fight against "corruption." 'WHEN A citizen gives a bribe," Medvedev explained in the March interview, "it is a crime." Being a lawyer "down to my bones," he seemed to be building a case against the state of Russian society - its citizens together with its minor officials. According to him, corruption is stamped out not only by amendments to the law, but through "anti-corruption stimulus" - such as revoking jobs and pensions. The idea is to make bribe-taking "indecent," something that can "destroy your future life." If the problem is as wide-spread as both Medvedev and Russia's critics claim, that's a lot of destruction. We have already seen a "high-profile" case in which an official is "sacrificed" (either with her own approval or to get her out of the way): On May 20, Lyudmila Maikova, chairperson of the Moscow District's Federal Arbitration Court, was dismissed from her post for purchasing apartments at a discount. More interesting, however, is the recent testimony in another case by Elena Valyavina, First Deputy Chairperson of the Supreme Arbitration Court. On May 12, she testified in the defense of Vladimir Solovyev, a journalist sued for defamation by a Kremlin official named Valery Boyev, who sat on Putin's presidential commission on state management and justice. Valyavina said Boyev was present at qualifications meetings for appointing judges, and had tried to influence her in at least one trial. Before the court had a chance to re-adjourn, Boyev dropped his complaint, and it remains to be seen (though it's highly doubtful) whether he or any implicated judges will be charged. THE ENTIRE issue of corruption seems to be a stand-in for what Medvedev sees as a much wider social shortcoming: "the habit of violating the law [which is]... very deep and exists on even on the everyday level." What really needs to be done, according to him, is to "chang[e] the perception of the law and the mind-set of people." This is not only a tall order, it's a shift toward governmental influence over society's moral sense - perhaps seeking to fill a void left by the downfall of Soviet ideology. And whereas Putin focused on strengthening the image and status of the Russian people in the world and in their own eyes, Medvedev's call for a "modern perception of the law" puts forward an ethical criteria for the behavior of Russian citizens based on "the supremacy of the law." "In our country," says Medvedev, "everything should be controlled by the law." Though this seems like a statement similar to saying "we should have a law-abiding country," it tacitly usurps the individual's free right to decide whether to obey or not - and to face paying the just consequence. Instead, it gives the greatest power - that of choice - to the "corresponding structures that exist to oversee the implementation of the law." Medvedev says that "[w]e need to assert the priority of laws ... over decisions that are made by the executive power and individual acts" - that is, to reenforce the former and prosecute the latter. It's difficult to say that the source of legislative power is embodied exclusively in the person of Vladimir Putin. He is the prime minister of a parliament with a lower and upper house, and not every law will come directly from him. But considering that Medvedev, when asked of his relationship to Putin, answered that "Russia needs the maximum consolidation of power" - that is, executive and governmental powers, which he and Putin respectively wield - it's difficult to believe his claims about judicial independence. The idea is clear: to create an efficient mechanism that will enforce not individual rights, but the source of power. The writer is editor of Zeek: Russified, a volume of works by contemporary Russian Jewish writers, poets and artists.